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ASU professor teaches students to become experts on happiness, leadership

Sarah Tracy, professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

July 12, 2017

Sarah Tracy, professor in Arizona State University's Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, believes in the importance of discovering different methods and approaches for encountering the world. She teaches students to become experts on personal happiness and leadership.

Tracy exemplifies human communication on all levels. She has the rare ability to connect with and impact the lives of all students — from undergraduate to graduate — as well as colleagues in her field of research.

She has created insightful and relevant undergraduate and graduate classes; designed workshops and created research opportunities for graduate students; traveled abroad teaching classes to summer study abroad undergraduate students; and shared her research, articles and books among colleagues.

In the classroom, Tracy is focused on how her teaching can educate students on being experts in the areas of compassion, kindness, listening and leadership.

She has created several undergraduate and graduate level “Communication of Happiness” and “Leadership” themed classes, and a graduate level "Qualitative Research Methods" class based upon her book.

Tracy’s “Communication of Happiness” classes help students think about ways to build happiness in their life — to see skills and activities that they already possess that they should continue to utilize.

Susana Valenzuela, Dean’s Medalist and Hugh Downs School of Human Communication alumnus, first came to know Tracy through her qualitative research course textbook. On the recommendation of another instructor, she became Tracy’s classroom apprentice in fall 2014 and worked with Tracy while she developed the first Happiness course.

“It was very evident that she was more than a professor, so it was no surprise she also became my mentor,” Valenzuela said. “Knowing her has become a crucial piece to the many pieces that make up who I am today. She is my professor, still — outside the classroom and in life."

Even with her busy teaching and research schedule, Tracy finds time for students —sometimes to just walk around campus and listen.

“She gave me more than anyone ever cares to give another person,” Valenzuela said. “She listened to me when I myself did not know I needed someone to simply listen. She encompasses compassion, authenticity, and actual communication, in every shape and form.”

Tracy also believes in teaching students and colleagues to follow their dreams and just “do it”.  She strives to touch the lives of each one of her students and demonstrates genuine enthusiasm to be amongst her peers.

“Because of the many ways in which she has generously shared her advice with me, I am about to conquer the next chapter of my graduate academic career in communication,” Valenzuela said.

Tracy has also been highly involved with the school’s summer study abroad program to the British Isles and has spent seven summers traveling abroad teaching undergraduate students.

Hugh Downs Hugh Downs School of Human Communication alumnus Lillian Thompson first met Tracy in 2015 when she studied abroad the summer of her sophomore year as an undergraduate student.

“Sarah was the light at a very dark time in my life and she didn’t even know it,” Thompson said. “When I first enrolled in her “How of Happiness” course, I was at a very low point and was suffering from depression. With her coaching and knowledge, she took me on a journey to acceptance and I took responsibility for my own sorrow. I left that course with the tools to pull myself out of depressive states in a timely manner.”

Her “Being a Leader” classes teach students about ‘Life Sentences’ — a concept that guides students to think about what caused them to be the way they are today.

Another turning point in Thompson’s life came while attending Tracy’s “Being a Leader” course.

“I was faced with the reality that I had been hiding a huge secret most of my life,” she said. “I suffer from a chronic illness and I have always been so scared to share that fact in fear of judgment or the chance that people would treat me differently because of it.”

“I am no longer a victim to my illness, and without her coaching I’m not sure I would be able to say that,” Thompson said.

Besides teaching, Tracy was the school’s doctoral program director from 2007-2011.

Ragan Fox, professor at California State-Long Beach and former doctoral student under Tracy, has known Tracy for 15 years. “She is, hands down, the best teacher I ever encountered,” stated Fox.

“She puts a tremendous amount of thought into her pedagogy and research. Being her teaching assistant was a master class in how to instruct a graduate seminar,” Fox said. “She is an exemplary professor: rigorous but fair, kind but not a pushover, and expects students to work but works harder than anyone I know in academia.”

“She has been a constant source of affirmation and inspiration in my career,” added Fox, who was Tracy's first teaching assistant in qualitative methods. “More than any professor, she taught me about the relationship between theory, method, data, and argumentation. After taking her class, a literature review, for instance, was no longer simply a must-do part of a research paper. I started to see the 'why' behind each part of an essay. She used a cocktail party analogy that I now use in every writing-intensive course I teach.”

In her research, Tracy tries to shed light on and address problems such as organizational burnout and bullying, and examining the communicative dynamics that make for especially compassionate communication.

Along the way, she has immersed herself in qualitative research methods.

“I'm passionate about analyzing qualitative data myself and helping others learn how to make sense of the rich contextual stories and interactions that surround us in life,” Tracy said.

Rahul Mitra, assistant professor at Wayne State, has known of Tracy since being a graduate student at Purdue — reading her work, and thinking she must be such a marvelous scholar and person to do the kind of work she did.

Their professional relationship began when he later met her at a "Scholars Meet and Greet" at the National Communication Association conference. Tracy is currently writing a chapter for a book Mitra is editing.

“Sarah Tracy is a wonderful scholar and human being, a tremendous asset to the entire field of Communication,” Mitra said. “Not only does she do cutting-edge research on human wellness, emotion labor, and organizational communication, she is also a skillful teacher who is constantly striving to become better at her craft. Her series of web videos about qualitative research have been very helpful for me in my short workshops, and I think they are a great testament to the kind of broader outreach that all social science scholars should be doing — going beyond academia to broader audiences to talk about why our research is important, and how it can help so many people.”

Mitra describes Tracy as a wonderful professional mentor, ever ready to help with advice, ideas and feedback. He was using Tracy’s 2013 textbook in his qualitative research methods seminar with graduate students and asked agreed to Skype in and chat with his students. 

“In her book, she has a wonderful way of talking novice students through the intricate and complex ways of qualitative research, with plenty of personal thoughts and reflections based on her long career,” he said. “Over Skype, she talked us through the 'behind the scenes' of many of the concepts and stories she narrated in the book, and my students loved interacting with her. They were amazed at how warm and convivial she was, for someone they had never met, and had long held in awe.”

On another occasion, Tracy invited Mitra to join a small interdisciplinary research gathering she was attending with her students and colleagues to talk about his own research.

“It was a wonderful occasion to witness, first hand, her openness to transdisciplinary collaborations and her steadfast belief in the role communication scholarship can play in helping address some key social problems.” he said.

Tracy is also co-director of the Transformation Project, a research initiative of the school. She was the director of the former Project for Wellness and Work-Life, a consortium of researchers studying the overlap of private, domestic life with work life, and the Sunshine for Sun Devils campaign.

“Throughout my graduate work, I read and reread her work on work-life balance, compassion, and qualitative research,” said Elissa Adame, research assistant professor with the school. “I was quite nervous to finally meet her at NCA in 2013 — not just because I idolized her, but also because I’d heard of others’ experiences of meeting their own “academic crush” to be disappointed by the scholar’s response.”

Since her first interaction with Tracy, Adame has felt even more inspired by Tracy’s work - both the work she does that appears in academic papers and the work she does to invest and support those around her every day.

Adame shared Tracy’s definition of leadership as "creating a future that would not have occurred without the leader’s influence." Tracy and Adame are currently involved in a mixed-method research project that illustrates Tracy’s dedication to creating a better future.

In fall 2017, Tracy developed two leadership classes with the goal of exploring how, if at all, the way we teach students leadership influences students’ leadership performance.

“Though the data is still being compiled, students in both classes reported feeling inspired and motivated by Tracy,” Adame said.

Tracy has given graduate students involved in the project an opportunity to learn about research design, data collection, and data analysis and continues to work closely with the students to ensure they learn valuable lessons that interest them.

Her work revolves around how people can relate to one another in meaningful and kind ways — treating others as multi-faceted crystallized selves with a variety of concerns and needs. 

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